Writing for the Curious
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Writing for the Curious

a green and yellow maple leaf fallen on wet woodchips
A fallen leaf, 28 October 2022

I have said before that many people seem to misunderstand what historians do, even if they are interested in history. Over on Andrew Gelman’s blog, I found people saying things like:

Whenever I see theories about ancient stuff I always feel it is very speculative. “This artifact is a stone ax from a hominid from c. 800,000 BP”. “The Samson story in the book of Judges is based on folk legends about a Hercules-like half-man, half-god figure, but edited to make it conform to a monotheistic worldview”. To the extent that these conclusions really represent the best understanding of experts, they sound to me like a maximum likelihood estimator when the likelihood function is very flat.


I mean, what is the actual evidence Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon? If you look it up there is very little concern for such issues.

If you are active in any of the historical science, you know that discussions between experts are full of questions, alternative explanations, and debates. It is press releases, documentaries, and trade books which usually focus on one interpretation and promote it as hard as possible. Most ancient historians are unsure if they can know anything about the moment when Caesar crossed from his province into Italy or whether the ‘bad emperors’ did the things that salacious stories have them do. But a belief that questions are not being asked or that sinister forces are shutting them down lies behind many conspiratorial and anti-expert movements today. So how are we failing to communicate what we do and what we value?

There are plenty of accessible books on ancient history which are built around a question or a debate. I can recommend three after thinking about it for a day or two:

  • Duncan B. Campbell, The Fate of the Ninth (2018) [summary with a link to buy it]
  • Ronald T. Ridley, Akhenaten: A Historian’s View (2019)
  • Guy Halsall, Worlds of Arthur (Oxford University Press, 2013) {sometimes postures rather than showing where something has been refuted ‘again and again’ but still goes through old theories and the evidence for them before turning around and showing how the same evidence was reinterpreted}

I can think of two or three others which are a bit harder to digest but still written in plain language:

  • Asya Pereltsvaig and Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) [review]
  • Peter James and Nick Thorpe (eds.), Centuries of Darkness: a challenge to the conventional chronology of Old World archaeology (1991)
  • possibly something by Bart D. Ehrman on the New Testament manuscripts (although Misquoting Jesus is more about his theories for why the text was changed in particular ways than about the manuscripts and reconstruction of manuscripts)

Books like this are harder to write and harder to read than ones which just tell a story or warn about hurting wrong beliefs you might already have but don’t know about. Understanding different perspectives on a topic and the arguments for them is harder than just absorbing one set of facts. So if you want more books and other resources like this, you have to buy them!

Journalists and publicists are much more comfortable promoting books of “lots of facts about a topic” or “a big idea” than books which ask how we know something. The first two kinds of books are easier to read, and journalists and PR people are usually not scientific thinkers who question everything using the best methods they can find. That is just not the kind of person which those professions reward! Learning how we know things about a topic is work, not light entertainment. Most people who read books, watch documentaries, or listen to podcasts just want something to keep their mind busy and give a feeling of learning. Most reference librarians or professors will point you to books on how we know things about a topic or how a field of knowledge has developed if you ask. But those books will not be as easy to find in places run by journalists and publicists.

I have said that as people realize they don’t have the influence which they used to believe they had, some of them just brandish their authority harder and try to shut down debates. Some people dismiss the Centuries of Darkness project because its proposed solution has problems, when anyone seriously involved in ancient history knows that building an absolute timeline for Bronze Age history is very hard and depends on shaky assumptions and selecting which bits of evidence to use. We can move the Bronze Age / Iron Age transition from Ireland to Iran back and forth a few hundred years depending on what assumptions we make, and the most common system, based on Flinders Petrie’s list of Egyptian kings, leaves blank spots in our pottery sequences where for hundreds of years people outside of Egypt seem to have left very few traces.

Some people try to dismiss the idea that there was never a historical person behind the Jesus of the gospels as non-academic, when anyone who can read can see that it was widely known in the late 19th and early 20th century and always had a few backers with relevant credentials. For any claim you can make about a specific thing the historical Jesus was or is, there is a book or article by a New Testament scholar which disagrees. (And “scholars disagree” does not imply “therefore nothing can be known,” but it does imply that you need to do some work figuring out why they disagree).

Perhaps some people believe that if they are honest that they can’t know some things for sure, people will not trust them and support their work. The Malcolm Gladwells and Jordan Petersons of the world make far more money and get far more attention than the humble and honest researchers. But I think its better to be honest about the problems with evidence which give rise to these dissident theories, rather than denying them in public and debating them in private. That kind of two-faced communication does not work in the age of social media and machine translation.

But if you want more writing and speaking for the public which is aimed at people who want to know how we know, you need to support it when it appears! People who study out of pure curiosity do not have much money, and journalists and publicists make the kind of things they do because they pay. If this site were about video games and ancient history or American politics and ancient history or collectible weapons and ancient history rather than how we know what we know, it would generate 100 times as much money.[1]

Beginning in November, my posting will slow due to other commitments and health challenges.

Help keep me asking questions with a monthly donation on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

(scheduled 28 October 2022)

[1] Bret Devereaux’s ACOUP blog patreon (Roman history, medievalish TV shows and films such as Lord of the Rings, video games such as Victoria III): 1187 patrons. Scholagladiatoria patreon (Victorian and medieval swords and fencing): 420 patrons. Eleanor Janega patreon (medieval sex, snarky rants): 584 patrons. About six people a month donate to this site, and about 70 donate to Science for the People podcast / radio show which interviews scientists and science writers. Brits and Americans have advantages over people from other countries on the Internet, and if I were blogging for money I would not be writing about ancient history and classic sci fi, but I think this shows that ‘care in explaining how you know what you know’ is not a big money maker!

Edit 2022-10-30: refined my statements about the pay of ‘pop culture and history’ vs. ‘history’ websites, channels, and podcasts.

Edit 2022-12-18: a response from Andrew Gelman!

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8 thoughts on “Writing for the Curious

  1. Kristen says:

    Great post. I tend to trust articles more if they admit to not knowing things for sure. Having not existed at that time, nobody can be certain.

    1. Sean says:

      There is kind of a tragedy of the commons where if you over-hype your discovery, you get more attention, but people trust your kind of person a bit less. A friend had a “Ctesias Score” for sexed-up press releases about archaeology, and psychology is in big trouble after promoting too many articles where the data was made up or the sample was too small.

      Real peasants manage their commons with rules, and researchers need to manage their field’s reputation in the same way. But its easier to yell at outsiders.

  2. russell1200 says:

    Possibly this is in line with what you are thinking?
    Timothy R. Pauketat in his “Chiefdoms and Other Archaeological Delusions” takes issue with the way we discuss earlier societies organization. His (to me rather obvious) point being that the simplified Chiefdom structure that various archeologists, anthropologists, etc. stick on these people doesn’t seem to really exist anywhere when you look closely. So why would it have existed as such in the past.

    As for Jesus, it can be reasonably well argued that Jesus probably existed. One point being various bits of his story wouldn’t be such extreme work arounds if they weren’t trying to explain away some embarrassing bits. One example being how to explain away why the Son of God would start off as a follower of John the Baptist. Bart Ehrman, a biblical textualist does a pretty good job of this. It is noteworthy, he does not seem to be calling himself a believer now that he has left the University.

    But when you get to hard evidence, it gets really tough. Some rather late writings with different sequencing (the gospels) and some recent writings (Paul) which have very little to say about Jesus the person: whom Paul never met. Some easily fabricated inserts into contemporary texts that come down to us through Christian copyists.

    1. Sean says:

      The last time I looked at it there are one or two passages in the letters of Paul which the mythicists really struggle with, but as soon as you change the question to “how much can we know about the historical Jesus?” a lot of respectable scholars agree that the answer is “not much.” People have been trying to find a convincing answer to “what is the textual relationship between the four famous gospels?” since the 3rd or 4th century CE.

      1. josh says:

        The question of textual relationship begs another, which is why didn’t the authors of the bible tell us? Or, more generally, why was the bible written so sloppily without clear names, dates, clear references an so on? Did ancient people not know how to do this? I get it that before the printing press not many people could read, but surely *business* existed during that time, and they’d need ways to express precise dates and amounts, if not authorship. Surely there was some level of editorial standard to be met, even then.

        On the flip side, how is it that the people of the time found the content of the bible so convincing? What was it competing with, at the time? Or maybe illiterate street priests lugged one around as a prop, and Christianity was driven by personality, celebrity, a kind of MLM of religion, in those early years in Rome.

        Whoah. I just realized that maybe the people of those times felt that life was really awful, especially the lower classes, slaves and peasants. There was no hope that things would keep getting better. Just more of the same, working the land for someone else’s benefit, having hardly anything and no say in one’s affairs. Lots of mothers and kids dying. I say this only because, when you think about it, the past is a post-apocalyptic nightmare from our perspective. All modern conveniences gone, all medicine and technology gone. So much information lost. The biosphere in great shape (okay, that’s not so bad). I can see the appeal of a religion that was so easy to describe, and join, but with enough mystery and vagueness to drive infinite discussion. It must have made a horrible life just a little more bearable, to really believe in a blissful afterlife with all your heart.

        1. Sean says:

          Hi Josh, I might get back to this later, but remember that in the ancient world writing and writing surfaces were expensive. There were no newspaper archives and no cheap notebooks, just costly papyrus and skins and waxed tablets. You could write short notes on sherds of pottery or stone but those are heavy. Systems for filing and indexing were rudimentary. So if the followers of an obscure Jewish teacher wanted to record his life, it probably would have been hard to fix events to the day even before the Roman sack of Jerusalem (and even without people who wanted certain dates and times for mystical reasons). OTOH, you can explain the vagueness in other ways such as Lena Einhorn’s theory that the Jesus story was moved back in time to distance it from the failed revolt against Rome, or the mythicist theories (neither Einhorn’s theory nor the mythicist theories seem very popular in academic circles, but they are out there!) And some of the gospels present Jesus as the kind of person who a Roman historian might have mentioned beyond one controversial line in Josephus (and yes the overwhelming majority of ancient Greek and Latin texts are lost, but the monks who chose which pagan texts to save were very interested in Jesus!)

          There are all kinds of theories about the composition of the texts in the Hebrew Bible, “Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible” by Karel van der Toorn had some interesting ones and also talked about the ways ancient scribes worked which are different from 20th century culture.

          In New Kingdom Egypt, an 8 meter roll of papyrus cost about 2 deben of copper when a prosperous worker like the workers at the Valley of the Kings probably earned the equivalent of 12 or 15 deben a month (source: Jac Jansen’s “Commodity Prices in Ramessid Egypt”). Papyrus was more expensive outside Egypt when it was available at all.

        2. Sean says:

          “Why did Christianity become the majority religion of the Roman empire” is a big question, but we can see that from Augustus’ day there were all kinds of teachers and prophets and miracle-workers wandering around the Roman empire. We see them in Petronius’ Satyricon, the spread of Mithraism, in Lucian on Alexander the Prophet, and apparently in one of the works of Augustine which lists ways in which tricksters may deceive Christians. Just like today, many people were looking for answers and people emerged offering them. I think its always going to be hard for outsiders to understand someone else’s new religion or new guru.

  3. Uncertainties Regarding Historical Facts – Book and Sword says:

    […] Over on Andrew Gelmans’s blog, there is a discussion about my post writing for the curious. […]

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